Fonts 301: Managing Fonts and Font Problems

Who needs font management? If you have ever installed additional fonts on your Mac, then you do.

Because of the Mac’s wide adoption in the desktop publishing and design world, managing fonts in OS X has long been an important, if unpleasant, task. The Apple tools have always been meager, but Leopard has made important improvements to Font Book, the system utility for managing installed fonts. However, there are still circumstances in which you may want to enlist the help of additional tools to get your fonts into shape.

Continuing our Font School series, I will outline the areas where font management software can help. Also, be sure to read our overview of Font Management Apps for the Mac.

Why Do I Need to Manage Fonts?

There are two general reasons why you would want to enlist software to help manage your fonts. The first, and most obvious, opportunity is simply to get a better handle on the fonts that are available for use in your designs or documents. If you work in a group or team, then it becomes even more important that everyone have the same fonts so you can more easily pass work around without experiencing weird font substitution problems.

The second opportunity is to improve system and application performance. Mac OS X Leopard does just fine with several hundred individual font variations in a few hundred families. When you get beyond that, into thousands of fonts, the system starts to slow down and certain applications take forever to update font menus or even launch. You will want a tool that can activate only the fonts that you need to keep things running nice and lean. Also, some applications like Adobe Creative Suite, QuarkXpress, and Microsoft Office manage their own fonts and font management tools can help you consolidate control.

When Fonts Go Bad

The other important reason for good font management practices, and good font management tools, is to provide you with some assistance in sorting out problems. The most common problems are the system locking up or dropping into a kernel panic when trying to load a bad font or in the event of a Font ID conflict. Good font management software should help you find corrupt fonts and ID conflicts and deal with them. Other problems are generally caused by bad font substitution (the system picking the wrong font and displaying gobbledygook in your email or browser) or corrupt font caches (gobbledygook characters written on top of each other and other nonsense). Good font management software helps manage these issues or at least helps clean up the mess.

Common Problems

Font Cache Corruption

The System, Word, and Adobe all keep their own font cache to speed up on-screen rendering. If the cache becomes corrupt, you will see all sorts of weird behavior. The symptoms include weird characters all printed on top of each other. The fix? Simply flush the cache. In the case of the system cache, you will need to restart the computer when you do so. Most font utilities include a tool to flush these font caches. I like the free Linotype FontExplorer X myself.

Font ID Conflicts

Font ID conflicts prevent the system from loading all the fonts properly. The most common symptom is that the computer will simply not boot except in safe mode. If the system boots, but then hangs when trying to login to a user account, you probably have a conflict (or maybe a corrupt font) in the User font library. Font management software can help you find ID conflicts and resolve them.

Corrupt Fonts

Fonts, just like other files, can become corrupt. If this happens, the system will often hang because fonts are loaded at such a low level in the operating system. There are a few font utilities that can scan for corrupt fonts. FontDoctor and Smasher are two that are available today. Good font management software will scan for corrupt fonts as they are added to the library and FontAgent Pro will also check as fonts are activated.

Font Substitution

Many times, documents specify the font that they are using in a non-specific way. A great example is a CSS stylesheet that asks for Times. There are several variants of the Times font and sometimes your system will pick the wrong one when trying to render the text on the screen. If you see nonsense text or characters in your email or your web browser, you almost certainly have a font substitution problem. The fix is to deactivate the problem font.

Pro Tip: If you see gobbledygook in email or in your browser, try deactivating Helvetica Fraction or Times Phonetic because these seem to be the most common problems. If you need more help, check out the very well written, and relatively inexpensive, e-book from TidBITS publishing titled, Take Control of Font Problems in Leopard.